'I had no place to call home for four years, then Marks & Spencer turned my life around'
Ten years ago Belfast man Ciaran Phoenix was homeless, but getting a job with M&S proved a lucky break
When west Belfast man Ciaran Phoenix's parents separated just over 14 years ago he found himself homeless, jobless and with very little to look forward to in life. Now, though, he has a full-time job, a nice flat to live in and has just returned from a lavish ceremony in London where he was a key speaker at an event to mark the 10th anniversary of a corporate-backed community initiative aimed at helping homeless and unemployed people.
Ciaran (37) was one of the first people in Northern Ireland to benefit from Marks & Spencer's Marks & Start scheme, and his success in turning his life around was recognised last week when he was invited to talk about his experiences at the special ceremony in Westminster to celebrate 10 years of the scheme.
Ciaran flew to London - his first ever trip to the capital city - to address a selected audience on the importance of such corporate ventures to people like himself who find themselves in desperate situations.
Life for Ciaran took a dramatic turn due to family circumstances, and he ended up living in temporary accommodation aged 23 with no place to call home for four years. "I was able to stay with my mum for a short time, but then I was homeless," he says.
He was able to find some emergency accommodation with the help of homeless charity Simon Community, who eventually found Ciaran a hostel place, but alone and unemployed life was pretty bleak.
"I left school when I was 16 and was training to become a chef, but it just didn't work out for me," he says.
With no job and no career plan in place, Ciaran continued to live at home with his parents, but a marital split when he was in his 20s turned his world upside down and he found himself out on the street. And that is not an unusual situation in Northern Ireland with figures from the Simon Community revealing that 40% of those who find themselves homeless is due to family breakdown. With no permanent address finding work became an almost impossible task - his best hope for the future at that stage was living in temporary accommodation sharing a house with up to 20 strangers.
Even now, he is reluctant to talk about what it felt like to be homeless, saying "it wasn't the happiest time of my life".
Despite his desperate plight, he was determined not to end up living on the city streets and never gave up hope.
He feared ending up in a vicious cycle of homelessness and took part in a series of educational community initiatives run by charities such as the Prince's Trust and Springboard among others during this time - and his attitude paid off.
"I nearly ended up living on the street, but thankfully it didn't come to that for me. I was lucky enough to get hostel accommodation," he says.
"When I was homeless I took part in many different programmes aimed at helping people like me," he explains. "I wanted to keep myself busy and my mind occupied to help me get through it. I just learned how to deal with it."
For four years, though, home was a house which he shared with 20 other people. While he had a roof over his head, Ciaran had little privacy.
"When you are new to the house you have to share a bedroom, but when another person leaves and finds their own home - then you get your own bedroom. Everything else in the house is shared - the kitchen and bathroom. There was also a smoking and non-smoking living room as well as a games room with a snooker table.
"I can't say I was ever scared in a hostel, but it is a communal space with lots of other people. I just got on with everybody around me. We were just a group of people who are put into a big hostel together - we were a community."
During this time, the Simon Community referred Ciaran to corporate responsibility charity Business in the Community which steered him in the direction of a two-week work placement with Marks & Spencer as part of its new community initiative, Marks & Start.
So, in September 2004, Ciaran started what was supposed to be a two-week stint with the famous retailer's Newtownbreda store in south Belfast.
"I was full of optimism and positivity but was also apprehensive, having been out of the work environment and out of normality for so long," he adds.
Despite his fears, Ciaran quickly started to enjoy his new working life. "They were very encouraging to be honest, and had time for me despite the fact I was only going to be there for two weeks. After a number of weeks, I was delighted to be asked back to the store to help out over the Christmas period," he says. "I gained a lot of confidence and for the first time in a long time actually found myself to be 'employable' which was a big thing for me. Incredibly, I was offered a full-time job with M&S about three months later and I've been at this store for 10 years now."
Ciaran is a full-time customer assistant in the Food Hall and his job involves stock management, price checking and customer services.
"Being offered a permanent job in 2005 was life-changing. That's an expression which is used lightly and a bit casually, but it really did change my life. When I was given the chance to join M&S, I was also offered accommodation at the very same time," he says.
"One week I had no job and was homeless, the next I was working full-time with a good wage and was living in a nice flat. It all happened as quickly as that.
"The scheme opens a lot of doors for people like me who may be homeless or have been unemployed for a long time.
"It's not just about two weeks' work experience - it's about developing interview techniques, employability skills, guidance and probably the most important of all, self-esteem and a sense of self-worth.
"For once, I had responsibility and a reason to get up in the morning. My whole life changed."
Being homeless had dented Ciaran's confidence and even when he was thrown a lifetime thanks to the scheme, he admits it was difficult making the adjustment to the working world.
"It was tough at the beginning because I had to get used to living a normal life again, but I was very proud of what I had achieved."
He also needed the support of the Simon Community again before he made a permanent move into independent living. "Before I moved into my flat in the Divis area, the charity moved me into a temporary flat to help prepare me for life on my own after being homeless for so long," he says.
Thankfully, Ciaran is now well settled in his city centre abode which is near his family with whom he is in close contact with.
And he has no plans to leave M&S Newtownbreda which was pivotal in helping him create a better life for himself.
"People ask me why I've never moved on in that time, either to another M&S store or to a new company altogether, but the M&S Newtownbreda team is like a family to me. They've been so good to me over the past decade and I feel very comfortable here."
Now, he is a strong advocate of the Marks & Start scheme which helped him overcome his homeless plight. "On the 10th anniversary of the programme I would encourage anyone who faces barriers in getting a job to find out more about Marks & Start. There are opportunities out there and thanks to M&S my life has changed for the better," he says.
Across the UK and Ireland, the Marks & Start scheme has supported over 10,000 people by working in partnership with four leading charity partners - The Prince's Trust, Business in the Community, Gingerbread and Remploy for people with disabilities.
After all the hardship, Ciaran has remained optimistic, taking part in outreach work with others who may find themselves without nowhere to call home and no job. "I use my experience to talk to others who maybe living in hostels. Life can get better - it did for me. I feel good now, I feel happy."
Over the 14 years since Ciaran first found himself homeless, the number of people in the province with nowhere to live has risen by over 70%, according to the latest statistics from the Department for Social Development.
Another worrying trend is the increased number of younger people seeking temporary accommodation. The Simon Community says 50% of its clients are under 25, and a large proportion of those are between the ages of 16 and 19. The charity currently has over 20 families with 32 children residing in one of its Belfast-based hostels because they have no place to call a permanent home.
For this reason, Ciaran would urge all of us to rethink our attitudes to those who have fallen on hard times. "I believe that everybody should be given a chance no matter what their circumstances are. We need to try and get beyond the stereotype of a homeless or unemployed person because there are a lot of good and decent people out there."
Homeless charity bosses here agree so often the image of a homeless person is the bearded man living on the street when it can happen to anyone.
Jim Dennison, chief executive of the Simon Community NI, says: "I'm always struck by the surprise on people's faces when my colleagues and I speak to members of the public about homelessness.
"Many people still believe that the stereotype of a homeless person is the rough sleeper, the bearded/scruffy man living on the streets. They also believe that the circumstances that bring about homelessness are poor choices in life, bad behaviour or just plain bad luck. That particular stereotype is only a small part of the reality. On that basis, the challenge for us is to dispel myths about this stereotype."
Now, Ciaran uses every opportunity to address the stereotype faced by homeless people by sharing his story with as many people as possible.
"Going to Westminster was a great chance for me to show through my own personal experience why it is so important for someone like me to be given a helping hand. Without the chance given to me by Marks & Spencer it would have been so difficult for me to have a hope of getting a full-time permanent job."
Life on the mean streets...
Homelessness figures from the Department for Social Development
- 8,000-20,000 households present to the Northern Ireland Housing Executive as homeless every year
- up to 3,000 households living in temporary accommodation
- there are 5,000 temporary accommodation spaces available
- Simon Community free helpline 0800 171 2222. Visit www.simoncommunity.org
- Shelter Northern Ireland, telephone 028 9024 7752. Visit www.shelterni.org
- Marks & Start, visit http://careers.marksandspencer.com/helping-you-find-work